“Domlur?” she said, hailing down a rather new looking auto. As the automan slowed down and came to halt in front of her, he asked, “Route gotha, madam?” “Yes, yes, I know the route”, she said. It was Thursday and they were in no hurry to get to work. She sent up a thankyou! to the upstairs person for letting her off easy in this May morning sun. Finding an auto at 9 am had the reputation of teaching one patience.
As they got in, the automan was clarifying why he didn’t know the route; he wasn’t from Bangalore. He was from Hassan. His mother had met with an accident and he didn’t have enough money for her treatment. He had rushed to Bangalore and he was now working day and night to save enough to pay for her surgery. They weren’t very talkative but he didn’t seem to pick up on that.
Without a sense of where he was going, he continuously asked her for directions at every turn off the road they were on. He sounded nervous and behaved so too. Time and again, at traffic lights, he would take out an image of Jesus and stare at it. She looked around for the driver’s ID card that’s usually stuck behind the front seat. She found it inserted horizontally on the handlebar– how useless. She tried to remember the details of his face. He had tired sickly eyes, worry lines that sagged his forehead and an unsure gaze. Perhaps unsure of what he was doing in this big city. Or unsure of what the future held.
Soon, he got a call. She found herself hoping it wasn’t some bad news. She was in the habit of expecting the worst so as to be prepared for all eventuality. Once, a long time ago, she had missed a phone call and a friend of hers had turned up dead. When he hung up and turned around to face her, she braced herself for the unthinkable. “My owner”, he said, smiling. The owner of the auto he had hired was calling to check on him and his whereabouts. The hire cost the automan Rs 1000 a day. How much did he have to make a day for this arrangement to make sense, she wondered. Her ride was worth Rs 100 and would take 45 minutes. Damn, how many hours did he work in a day? She quietened down to think it through.
Just before they got to MG road, she was jolted out of her thoughts when the automan tried the latest trend on the roads these days. As vehicles piled up at a red light, he got on to the wrong side of a two-way street via the break in the median in order to get ahead of the line. When she protested, he casually dismissed her, “Thumba jam ithe, madam. You will never get to work”. “Get back in line, now!” she said, dusting off her stern voice. When he obeyed her without question, she made a mental note to use it more often.
As if to clear the air, he told her about the time a man rode with him all the way to Koramangala only to say at the end of the journey that he had no money. “Come home,” he had told the automan as he left. She didn’t ask him why he hadn’t fought for his money. She wouldn’t have either. When they got to Domlur, he wanted to know where to find a ride back to Banaswadi. “If you don’t find one on Old Airport Road go to Indiranagar”, she pointed.
As she paid him and got off, he asked, “Could you please help me out? You know I don’t have any…” She wasn’t listening because a realisation was dawning on her. She was realising that the minute he told her about his mother, she had known that the ride would end with this question. She had done a mental tally of the notes in her purse. In between, when he broke the traffic rules, she had even toyed with the idea of taking the moral high ground. Before he could finish his plea, she gave him a five hundred rupee note and a smile.
Throughout this exchange she could feel a pair of incredulous eyes on her. As the auto drove away, the tirade began. “Was that a 500 you gave him? Are you mad? He told you that entire story because he wanted to dupe you. And you walked right into it. 500 bucks. You’ve never had any value for money. This is how he makes money, I am sure. He must be spinning these stories. Different stories for different people. How fun! He must have taken one look at your face and thought, this one? This one will fall for my sick-mother story. You saw him drive on the wrong side, didn’t you? If he was as scared as he claimed to be, don’t you think he would have stuck to the rules? And did you see how he made a show of taking out a picture of Jesus and staring at it? I am sure you will find him acting in plays by night. He must be duping people for practice. And he must think of this as payment for his acting chops.”
She thought to herself, “All I know is, when you need money, you need money; nothing else will do. If he was lying to me, that’s entirely on him. If he can lie about his mother being sick to make a quick buck, then he surely has bigger problems! I took a ride with him but I’ll never know if he took me for a ride!”